While most scholars agree on when phở first came about (in the early 20th century), its history remains debatable, due to the complex cultural interaction between Vietnam, China and France during the French colonial times.
Despite the regional differences, Phở has always remained a bright spot in Vietnamese cuisine. Its evolution throughout the years signifies the people’s will and creativity to make the best out of the circumstances.
Some believe it came from the French dish pot-au-feu, given the resemblance in pronunciation and ingredients. Pot-au-feu is a beef stew made from inexpensive cuts of beef and an assortment of sturdy vegetables, such as carrots, turnips and potatoes. Others argue that it is more complicated than that.
Professor Trịnh Quang Dũng stated in his paper “100 Years of Vietnamese Phở” that phở’s predecessor is “xáo trâu”, a popular street food consisting of water buffalo slices and rice vermicelli sold along the Red River. In response to an abundance of beef, these vendors swapped buffalo out for beef bones and offcuts, leftovers that butchers tried to get rid of after cows were slaughtered for the French consumption (Vietnamese did not care for beef much at that time).
As merchant ships from China travelled through the Red River, Chinese vendors also began to sell “xáo trâu”, which was very similar to a Yunnanese dish called “ngưu nhục phấn”. Even though it was a phonetic translation from the Chinese term, the word caught on. It was then abbreviated to “phấn” and eventually “phở” to avoid confusion when “phấn” is mispronounced as “phân” (feces).
With the arrival of Chinese workers and Ha Noi’s accelerating urbanization, the dish gained its popularity and phở shop mushroomed around the city by 1930.
It was not until 1939 that phở gà (chicken phở) first appeared, due to the government’s restriction of draft animal slaughtering. There was no beef on Mondays and Fridays, so vendors resorted to chicken, which eventually became a mainstay.
As the Vietnamese diaspora traverses the globe, more variations of phở popped up, including seafood, duck and even vegan phở. Nevertheless, beef and chicken are still the most well-loved.
Within the country, there are also subtle differences between phở from the North and the South.
Some argue that this is the purist’s version of phở, which has a clear broth and a delicate flavour. The broth’s seasoning mainly comes from beef bones and a touch of MSG that vendors typically add when serving. The noodle is flat and wide. In terms of herbs and vegetables, a bowl of Northern phở is often covered in a blanket of green onion. Condiments are fish sauce, lime and chilli sauce. There are also some quẩy (fried breadsticks) on the side for a more substantial meal, a remnant of the wartime austerity.
After the French colonial period ended and Vietnam was partitioned in 1954, more than one million Northerners migrated southward. Phở’s popularity in Saigon took off from there. Saigonese were not shy with their flavour, adding rock sugar and beef fat to phở’s broth, making it sweeter and bolder. A bowl of Southern phở is often full to the brim, with the addition of bean sprouts and an assortment of herbs such as basil, coriander and culantro. Hoisin sauce is a familiar condiment on the table.
There you have it, a brief history of phở and its variations. Despite the regional differences, phở has always remained a bright spot in Vietnamese cuisine. Its evolution throughout the years signifies the people’s will and creativity to make the best out of the circumstances.
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